February 25, 2016

Musings on Education

Fixin' tractors with firewood and milk cartons.
I recently acquired a used BCS two-wheeled tractor and discovered some significant mechanical gremlins that went unreported by the seller (caveat emptor, eh?). I took a stab at the job rather than paying big bucks and waiting weeks for a small engine repair shop to perform the work and I am happy to report a successful outcome. The major work included repairing the power take-off transmission to address some worn gears and a fuel system overhaul (including a carburetor rebuild) to address a fuel starvation problem. Other work included general control cable adjustment and lubrication, repair of an electrical short circuit, engine valve adjustment, and replacing spark plugs and the air filter. All told, the project was fun, vastly informative, and very attainable with the help of online tutorials and a willingness to tinker.
What does small equipment repair have to do with education?

I have absolutely no formal training in small engine repair. I also have no formal training in any number of trades that are commonly employed around the home such as plumbing, carpentry, wiring, and painting. Heck, let’s even throw sewing in there for good measure. A homeowner faced with a need for these skills typically has two options - learn the skills or hire them out. I, being of frugal stock, typically (but not always) chose the former. I am fortunate to have a father who showed me how to change oil as a youngster, thus imparting the first lessons of mechanical literacy. The rest has been trial and error.

Again, what does this have to do with education?

Aside from one semester each of shop and home economics in middle school, my public education was completely bereft of trades topics. The trades are almost completely absent from the American curriculum even though they are essential to our daily lives. Grade schools focus nearly exclusively on math, history, science, writing, and reading and the obvious path preferred by society is for students to graduate high school on a college track to prepare them for a white collar career. This was my path and it has suited me relatively well but I feel that I missed a whole lot. Yes, I have a broad liberal arts training and can hold conversations on diverse topics in mixed company. But I get a bit anxious when I am faced with an ostensibly simple task such as replacing a water heater. I mean hell, I cloned my own DNA in biology lab, how hard can replacing a water heater be? Umm..yeah...screw up that 240 volt wiring and you can kill yourself pretty quick. Or flood the basement if the pipes aren’t soldered correctly.

So what, hire a contractor, right? What I’m getting at the education system displays an inherent bias that “smart” kids should only pursue academics and that everyone else is predestined for the seemingly less worthy world of trade work. For a high school student with good grades to even express an interest in the trades would bring the immediate scorn of guidance counselors, teachers, and peers. And unfortunately, the kids with less than exceptional grades are made to feel like they are not as worthy and their future successes will be limited. Except, trades are no second fiddle and require as much training and intelligence as academic work plus a whole lot more common sense! Plus, the trades offer the possibility of business ownership that is often absent from the white collar world. Recognizing that tradespeople work long hours in demanding conditions, I think that there is a lot of satisfaction and pride in the problem solving and craftsmanship that accompany these lines of work. And then there is the college educated office worker who shuffles through the workday alternating between boredom, apathy, expediency, and contempt. Sure, the trades have these attitudes too, but I just don’t see as much pride and satisfaction in the white collar folks. Certainly not as much common sense.

I think there may be a sizable percentage of high school and college age students that would be much happier if they were given a chance to explore alternatives paths. Perhaps some core classes such as introduction to trades, entrepreneurialism, basic accounting, and agriculture (one can be optimistic). The school system wants to develop specialists; I say let’s develop well rounded citizens literate in academics, arts, and trades. I once heard the concept that conflict between two people or groups arises from differences in skill sets. Or to quote Mark Twain, “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Expand literacy, bridge the gap between blue and white collar workers, build an educated and capable citizenry, and rebuild this democracy.
Keep tinkering on those tractors!

1 comment:

  1. Dirty hands provide endless wonders...I'm very happy that you enjoyed the oil change, I'm still doing it at twice your age...